American Honda Divvies Up Billion-Dollar Ad Account

An American Honda Motor Co. agency review that Ad Agecalls “the most closely watched … of the past year” ended with mixed emotions at the incumbent of 27 years, RPA. Although it retained the Honda portion of the account, it lost the creative for the Acura luxury business to Interpublic’s Mullen and the media for both brands to Publicis Groupe’s Starcom MediaVest. Muse Communications (African-American and Asian-American consumers) and Orci (Hispanic consumers) retain the multicultural assignments.

Honda spent a total of $1.14 billion on U.S. advertising in 2011, according to the Ad AgeDataCenter. The Martin Agency, of Richmond, Va., and a Los Angeles agency, MDC Partners’ 72andSunny, Los Angeles, were also finalists for the creative.



RPA “has beaten the typically poor odds of an incumbent in an advertising review,” Andrew McMains writes in Adweek. Losing the account entirely would have had “catastrophic effects” for RPA, ad veteran Kevin B. O’Neilltold the Los Angeles Times’ Meg James before the decision was announced. The account reportedly represents more than half of its business.

“Advertising has always been very competitive and these account reviews are the ‘High Noon’ of the business, with agencies pulling together all of their firepower for these duels in the middle of the street,” said O’Neill, who now teaches at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. “It’s enormously satisfying when you win, and heart-breaking when you lose.”

“RPA has created Honda brand advertising since it opened as Rubin Postaer & Associates in 1986, spun off from what had been the Los Angeles office of the agency known as Needham Harper & Steers and also Needham Harper Worldwide,” the New York Times’ Stuart Elliott writes in the “Media Decoder” blog. 

“We are creating a new and highly collaborative path forward that will yield outstanding creative and enable us to focus more of our marketing investment on communicating with our customers,” according to Michael Accavitti, American Honda’s VP of national marketing operations. “We are confident that our new team of agencies will create dynamic marketing campaigns that connect and engage consumers with our products and our brands, while achieving an even higher level of efficiency and effectiveness.”

Each agency will have dedicated workspace at the automaker’s headquarters in Torrance, Calif., according to Accavitti, and Mullen and MediaVest will be opening or expanding offices in Southern California.

“For Mullen, picking up the Acura brand is a huge opportunity to help the Interpublic shop continue its trajectory from an East Coast mainstay to a formidable national agency,” Alexandra Bruell writes in Ad Age. “The shop, which was on Ad Age’s A-List in 2013 representing the best ad agencies in the country, has been on a new business tear of late. Other clients it added this year include Coca-Cola’s Honest Tea, American Greetings and SquareTrade.”

Mullen created ads for BMW in the mid-1990s and has done some work for General Motors, the Boston Globe’s Chris Reidy reports

“The agency review process was highly collaborative and strategic and included several agencies that we hold in high regard,” Mullen president Alex Leikikh said in a statement. “We’re proud to be part of the Acura family, excited to get to work on their behalf, to build our presence in the L.A. market, and to do amazing things together.”

Honda established American Honda Motor Co. in Los Angeles in 1959 when motorcycles were its primary line of business, Ad Age reported in a 2003 roundup of its marketing lineage in the U.S. Its first U.S. ad agency, Gumpertz, Bentley & Dolan, Los Angeles, “produced ads showing well-dressed people riding the small motorbikes,” the story informs us. Its entire budget in 1961 -- its first year of sustained advertising -- was $240,000.

The account moved to Grey, which developed the “You meet the nicest people on a Honda“ tagline, in 1963. The company retained Chiat/Day when it decided to enter the automobile market in 1968 because Grey represented Ford for autos. The luxury Acura line was launched in 1986 with Ketchum Advertising as the agency. The Acura account moved to RPA in 1999.

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